by Patrick Süskind
Translated by John E. Woods
He succeeded in being considered totally uninteresting. People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.
Let me start off by saying that this is a weird book… And coming from me, that is quite something.
The second most important theme of this book, the first probably being obvious from the title, is the general disdain, even disgust, towards humans, which is probably not alien to any of us. After all, each one of us have, at some point in our lives, considered leaving behind this deplorable world and moving to the top of a volcano.
No? Is it just me? Well, never mind…
I believe it is also worth noting how much a book like this reflects on the author himself. Süskind, despite his literary success, has been unusually inactive over the past few years, and now lives as a recluse. Little is known about his personal life.
Also, it does not come as a surprise that the translator of the book, John E. Woods, received the PEN Prize for translation in 1987.
Now, when you start reading the book, the most important thing that leaps to the foreground, is the emphasis laid on scents. From the very first page, the primary sense used to lay the scene is olfactory; and it is used with extreme efficacy, might I add.
There are instances where the reader, especially one who shares the protagonist’s heightened sense of smell, and his disgust of humans, is overcome by nausea, by the revolting accuracy of the descriptions.
It is strange how dependant we have grown on our sense of sight that we tend to ignore the other, almost equally effective senses. After all, while travelling home in a crowded bus, it is not the sight of the sticky, sweaty bodies, but their stench, that makes you gag… Ugh!
Set in pre-revolution France, the story begins in Paris, described by the author as the city with the foulest stench, where an unusual child is born. His mother, a fishwife, is executed for the infanticides of her previous children, leaving him to be raised like cattle by the emotionally stunted Madame Gaillard.
The unusual part about the child is that, oddly enough, he seems to have no smell whatsoever. Perhaps, by the bizarre combination of these factors, he is left with a phenomenal sense of smell, a complete absence of humanity, and a deep disgust of humans, the three being deeply intertwined.
Quite frankly, the first part of this book is pretty much a How-To guide for turning a somewhat weird baby into a complete psychopath.
Now, imagine, in this disgusting world, you encounter a fragrance so exquisite that you cannot imagine your life without it. What lengths would you go to acquire it? That is, basically, what the story is about, as the protagonist’s obsession grows, and he travels through France learning the art of creating perfumes.
Ironically, the protagonist is named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille after Saint John the Baptist who, like Grenouille’s mother, had been beheaded.
Since Grenouille is, as one can suspect, not the most expressive of characters, the entire story is driven by a highly-descriptive style of narration.
Oddly enough, this book has been adapted into a movie, and while the cast seems promising, I have not yet had the opportunity to watch the movie. Nonetheless, turning a narrator-driven story about a psychopath obsessed with smell into a movie seems like an implausible task.
Of course, if any of you have seen the movie, do tell me what you thought of it.
Now, to whom would I recommend this book. That is a tough question to answer…
In general, if you like weird stuff, or dislike people, you would like this.
Anyway, you can find the book here:
Well, that is all for today.
By the way, have you ever been to a SwapBook Meet? You should. It is fun.
For one, that was how I was introduced to this book…